27 June – St Cyril of Alexandria
Alexandria was the largest city in the ancient world. Rather like Los Angeles, it was a sprawling mixture of races and creeds; and it was a byword for the violence of its sectarian politics, whether of Greeks against Jews or of orthodox Christians against heretics. Cyril began his career as a worthy follower of this tradition. He succeeded his uncle as bishop of Alexandria in 412, and promptly solved a number of outstanding problems by closing the churches of the Novatian heretics and expelling the Jews from the city. This caused trouble and led to an ongoing quarrel with the Imperial governor of the city and to murderous riots. It is not for this part of his life that St Cyril is celebrated.
In 428, Nestorius, the new Patriarch of Constantinople (and hence one of the most important bishops in the world) made statements that could be interpreted as denying the divinity of Christ. The dual nature – human and divine – has always been hard for us to accept or understand, and if it seems easy it is only because we have not thought about it properly. Those who dislike problems have had two responses: to deny the human nature of Christ or to deny his divinity: and either leads to disaster, since both deny the Incarnation and hence the divinisation of human nature.
The resulting battle was as unedifying as most of the early fights that defined the shape of Christianity, because both sides were concerned to defend something that they saw as being of infinite and eternal importance. If it had been a question of power politics, of who got what post and what revenues, the matter could have been settled quietly – but this was not about power, it was important, and the victory was more important than the methods. Seen from fifteen centuries later, the proceedings seem melodramatic and absurd: Cyril arriving at the Council of Ephesus accompanied by fifty bishops wielding baseball bats (or the fifth-century equivalent); the Emperor, burdened with a sister who supported Cyril and a wife who supported Nestorius; the ratification of the contradictory decrees of both the council that supported Cyril andthe council that supported Nestorius; the imprisonment of both bishops; the bribery…
To revere Cyril of Alexandria is not to approve the methods he used: he fought according to the conventions of the time, and with its weapons. But he never sought to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents, only to win the day for the truth of salvation: would that controversies today were fought with such pure motives.
After the fireworks of the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, and sought to reconcile to the Church any Nestorians who were willing to engage in dialogue. It is largely through his efforts that we can celebrate (even if we still fail to understand) the two natures of Christ, and that we can address Mary as “Mother of God”. It is as a theologian rather than as a politician that Cyril is honoured.
So let us give thanks that Cyril lived, and let us enjoy the fruits of his achievement; but although we ought all to share his pure zeal for the truth, let us not hurry to imitate his more vigorous methods!
The Lord appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre while he was sitting by the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up, and there he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, and bowed to the ground. ‘My lord,’ he said ‘I beg you, if I find favour with you, kindly do not pass your servant by. A little water shall be brought; you shall wash your feet and lie down under the tree. Let me fetch a little bread and you shall refresh yourselves before going further. That is why you have come in your servant’s direction.’ They replied, ‘Do as you say.’
Abraham hastened to the tent to find Sarah.’ ‘Hurry,’ he said ‘knead three bushels of flour and make loaves.’ Then running to the cattle Abraham took a fine and tender calf and gave it to the servant, who hurried to prepare it. Then taking cream, milk and the calf he had prepared, he laid all before them, and they ate while he remained standing near them under the tree.
‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him. ‘She is in the tent’ he replied. Then his guest said, ‘I shall visit you again next year without fail, and your wife will then have a son.’ Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years, and Sarah had ceased to have her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, ‘Now that I am past the age of child-bearing, and my husband is an old man, is pleasure to come my way again!’ But the Lord asked Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Am I really going to have a child now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the same time next year I shall visit you again and Sarah will have a son.’ ‘I did not laugh’ Sarah said, lying because she was afraid. But he replied, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
When Jesus went into Capernaum a centurion came up and pleaded with him. ‘Sir,’ he said ‘my servant is lying at home paralysed, and in great pain.’ ‘I will come myself and cure him’ said Jesus. The centurion replied, ‘Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof; just give the word and my servant will be cured. For I am under authority myself, and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man: Go, and he goes; to another: Come here, and he comes; to my servant: Do this, and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you solemnly, nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this. And I tell you that many will come from east and west to take their places with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven; but the subjects of the kingdom will be turned out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go back, then; you have believed, so let this be done for you.’ And the servant was cured at that moment.
And going into Peter’s house Jesus found Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.
That evening they brought him many who were possessed by devils. He cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah:
He took our sicknesses away and carried our diseases for us.
You have believed, so let this be done for you
The stories from today’s readings are all examples of faith in action. Faith lets us see through different eyes, as if the scales of skepticism are removed and we perceive with a more trusting and open heart. Last night I was at a faith meeting. I am usually a little apprehensive about going to these things. Most of the time, I try to put it off because I don’t like the feeling of vulnerability that comes from opening up to a roomful of strangers. The fault lies with me completely. So I sit in a corner, arms folded across my chest and just listen, attempting all the while to suspend my wordly skepticism. I want to be supportive of my faith sisters, and I am hoping my disbelief isn’t obvious. Very often I struggle with the right response. So I simply listen and hope the Holy Spirit will pry the scales from my eyes so I can ‘see’.
We are all made for stories, that is how the human race communicates truths – through sharing stories. To listen to someone’s story and to allow that truth into our hearts requires us to give ourselves over to wonder. Very often, we will not be able to identify with their circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to apply the truth that God is trying to teach us. Who will really know if Sarah had a baby in her nineties? The truth of her story though is not so much that she was blessed with motherhood, but that she, like us, did the very human thing of faltering and finding her way again. She vacillated, as we would have done, between faith and disbelief. And through the long years of waiting, she did the very human thing of trying to sort it out for herself. Though her efforts were met with mixed results — eventually she grew cynical and resigned herself to her childlessness — the truth in Sarah’s story is that God did not give up on her, even though she might have felt that He had.
I’m waiting for God to answer a prayer at the moment. I have to admit, my attempts at prayer have been somewhat half-hearted, as if I am afraid to even ask this of Him. It’s such a ‘practical life issue’, but isnt’t that when God truly surprises us? By showing us resolutions to practical life issues? Last night, He compelled me to go to a faith meeting; something I rarely do. There I was reminded of how His hand works in the lives of others, how the concept of ‘Time’ for God is both a lot slower and a lot quicker than what we think. And though this morning, a cloud of anxiety still hangs over me, I am comforted by that it is normal to have this human condition of faltering. He still ‘sees’ me – even if I struggle to ‘see’ Him. And He will help me hold on to Hope while I wait, just as He has with so many others before me.
(Today’s Oxygen by Sharon Soo)
Prayer: We pray that God will help us to hold on to Hope, that we not grow discouraged from the waiting.
Thanksgiving: We give thanks for those who are courageous enough to share their faith stories, that we too may share in the truths that God has shown them.